After a random walk and different articles about Chernobyl and the exclusion zone, I want speak to conclude (at this moment) my “Chernobyl Diaries”, about the efforts and the bravery of the firefighters (or liquidators as they were known here) in the fighting and management of the blaze that initially destroyed Reactor 4 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Shortly after the accident, firefighters arrived to try to extinguish the fires. First on the scene was a Chernobyl Power Station firefighter brigade under the command of Lieutenant Volodymyr Pravik, who died on 9th May 1986 of acute radiation sickness. They were not told to the people how dangerously were the radioactive smoke and the debris, and maybe not even have known that the accident was anything more than a regular electrical fire: “We didn’t know it was the reactor. No one had told us.” Grigorii Khmel, who was the driver of one of the fire engines, later described what happened:
“We arrived there at 10 or 15 minutes to two in the morning… We saw graphite scattered about. Misha asked: “Is that graphite?” I kicked it away. But one of the fighters on the other truck picked it up. “It’s hot,” he said. The pieces of graphite were of different sizes, some big, some small, enough to pick them up. We didn’t know much about radiation. Even those who worked there had no idea. There was no water left in the trucks. Misha filled a cistern and we aimed the water at the top. Then those boys who died went up to the roof – Vashchik, Kolya and others, and Volodya Pravik…. They went up the ladder … and I never saw them again.”
However, Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, told a different story:
“I remember joking to the others, -There must be an incredible amount of radiation here. We’ll be lucky if we’re all still alive in the morning.”
Twenty years after the disaster, he said the firefighters from the Fire Station No. 2 were aware of the risks.
“Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze. The immediate priority was to extinguish fires on the roof of the station and the area around the building containing Reactor No. 4 to protect No. 3 and keep its core cooling systems intact. The fires were extinguished by 5:00, but many firefighters received high doses of radiation. The fire inside reactor 4 continued to burn until 10 May 1986; it is possible that well over half of the graphite burned out.”
The fire was extinguished by a great effort of helicopters dropping over 5,000 metric tons of sand, lead, clay, and neutron absorbing boron onto the burning reactor and injection of liquid nitrogen. The Ukrainian filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko catched the film footage of an Mi-8 helicopter while its main rotor collided with a nearby construction crane cable, causing the helicopter’s fall near the damaged reactor building and killing all four-man on board. From eyewitness accounts of the firefighters involved before they died, one described his experience of the radiation as “tasting like metal,” and feeling a sensation similar to that of pins and needles all over his face. The explosion and fire threw hot particles of the nuclear fuel and also far more dangerous fission products, radioactive isotopes such as caesium-137, iodine-131, strontium-90 and other radionuclides, into the air: the residents of the surrounding area observed the radioactive cloud on the night of the explosion. In the city of Chernobyl there is a simple memorial to the liquidators who rushed to reactor number 4 immediately after the explosion. The firefighters who initially responded to the disaster on the morning of April 26, 1986 were unaware that they were entering a radioactive environment, and rushed to the plant without donning protective suits and respirators. While they labored to extinguish the fires, their bodies absorbed lethal doses of radiation, and many of them later died of Acute Radiation Sickness. Overall, some 600,000 workers, including scientists, miners, and Soviet military conscripts, participated in the Chernobyl cleanup efforts. The plaque on the monument is inscribed “To those who saved the world.”